Five logical fallacies often used in political and policy debate

Posted on August 15, 2018

Progressives have gotten so used to hearing bald-faced political lies that perhaps we have become a little less ready to recognize rhetorical tricks. Let us consider five of the most common informal logical fallacies—arguments that may sound convincing but actually rely on a flaw in logic.

(1) Red Herring Fallacy

Also known as: misdirection, smokescreen, clouding the issue, beside the point, and the Chewbacca defense.

A Red Herring argument is one that changes the subject, distracting the audience from the real issue to focus on something else where the speaker feels more comfortable and confident.

EXAMPLE: It may be true that the minimum wage should be adjusted, but the real solution is to eliminate burdensome government regulations so businesses can grow and be able to pay their employees higher salaries.

Your response should be: This is not an either-or question. Right now, we’re debating specific legislation before the legislature/council to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I’m saying it provides hard-working families with income to spend on their basic needs. Let’s talk about that.

(2) Strawman Fallacy

Also known in the U.K. as Aunt Sally.

A Strawman argument is an intentional misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. It sets up an easy (and false) target for the speaker to knock down.

EXAMPLE: The pro-abortion lobbyists oppose a waiting period and sonogram requirement because they favor abortion on demand. And abortion on demand means eliminating all consideration of the unborn child as well as women’s health.

Your response should be: That is not the issue before this legislature. We are currently debating whether politicians should interfere in a woman’s most important and personal life decisions. I’m saying our goal must be to promote people’s health and well-being, not impose someone’s beliefs on others.

(3) Slippery Slope Fallacy

Also known as absurd extrapolation, thin edge of the wedge, and camel’s nose under the tent.

A Slippery Slope argument is a version of a Red Herring. Specifically, this is a claim that a policy which takes a small step in one direction will lead to a chain of events that will result in drastic change.

EXAMPLE: If we require background checks for the sale of all guns, including private sales at gun shows, it will lead to the federal government obtaining the information to create a list of who owns guns which, in time, will lead to the confiscation of privately-owned firearms.

Your response should be: We are debating a specific proposal which clearly and obviously does not include your concern. If I argue for driver’s licenses are you going to say it will lead to bicycle licenses? If I argue for cleaner drinking water are you going to say it will lead to a shutoff of all water? Let’s debate the issue of background checks—why do you think we should sell these guns to any adult whatsoever, no questions asked?

[The gun lobby uses Slippery Slope more than anyone. But it was also fairly common in the marriage debate, e.g., If we legalize same-sex marriage, what will stop us from legalizing marriage between people and animals?]

(4) Begging the Question Fallacy

Also known as: assuming the initial point, chicken and the egg, and circular reasoning.

In an argument Begging the Question, the conclusion is assumed in one of the argument’s premises, and that premise is not supported by independent evidence. Often called circular reasoning, it begins and ends at the same place. [Sorry, it has nothing to do with prompting someone to ask a question.]

EXAMPLE: Our Second Amendment rights are absolute, so gun control laws are illegal.

Your response should be: I am arguing for a specific policy and you are responding with a circular argument that’s supported by no evidence at all. Background checks for gun purchases have been required by state and federal laws for decades, the only question is whether we’re going to apply the law to everyone or continue to have a nonsensical and dangerous loophole.

(5) Post Hoc Fallacy

From the Latin phrase “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” which means “after this, therefore because of this.” Also known as false cause.

A Post Hoc argument is one where the speaker confuses correlation with causation, specifically, that because on event followed another, the first event caused the second. Is there a so-called Education Reform argument that’s not Post Hoc?

EXAMPLE: Schools that teach Latin have higher test scores, therefore if we establish a school that teaches Latin, it will improve student achievement.

Your response should be: You are confusing correlation with causation. There is no proof that teaching Latin causes children to score higher but there is every reason to believe that high-scoring children take Latin. Let us get back to the real point: Our families and our communities need our public schools to provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life. There are no standardized children, each one has their own challenges and needs. The question is, how are we going to ensure that?